Farm Productivity Must Surge to Meet the World's Needs

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CORNFIELDS blanket Iowa like a green ocean, making thoughts of famine seem as out of place as fleas on a goldfish. Yet John Ruan does worry about famine - so much so that he awards $200,000 each year to whoever contributes most to improving world food output.

"We can produce more population," the Des Moines businessman muses, "but not more land."

Our planet and its resources continue to shrink in relation to the burgeoning human population. Farmers must feed 5.3 billion mouths, and 90 million new ones each year - as much as another Mexico.

"The question is, can we do it?" asks Richard Harwood, a sustainable-agriculture expert at Michigan State University (MSU).

World food production must triple within 50 years to feed a peak population of 9 billion to 12 billion, says Dennis Avery, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. "I see it as a challenge," says Mr. Avery, who is considered the most optimistic forecaster of food production trends.

Less than a billion people inhabited earth 200 years ago, when English economist Thomas Malthus theorized that populations naturally grow at a faster rate than food supply, making misery and starvation inevitable. That scenario has unfolded in some poor countries. But Malthus did not foresee that economic development and modern birth-control techniques would curb population growth, nor that new agricultural technologies would boost food output, as has happened in much of the world.

Consider last year's "International Human Suffering Index," compiled by the Population Crisis Committee in Washington, D.C. In Denmark, the nation with the least suffering as measured by daily calorie supply, per capita gross national product, and other measures, population growth has slowed to zero. In Mozambique, where suffering is the greatest, annual population growth is a substantial 2.7 percent.

Thus, despite the currency of phrases like "world hunger" and "global famine," those conditions don't exist and probably never will, food resource experts agree. Starvation is local.

Today, the world's people on average are better-fed than ever before, but vast numbers still go hungry - 786 million in the developing world, down from 941 million two decades ago, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Several tasks lie ahead, agronomists agree. Political conditions that give rise to conflicts must abate. Agriculture must be put on a sustainable basis. Farm productivity must be enhanced and modern techniques disseminated. Economic development is essential to help the poor reduce their birth rates and afford a better diet. The political challenge

In 1979 Tenneco West, then the agribusiness subsidiary of the Houston-based natural gas transmission company, set up a 3,000-acre mechanized farm in northern Sudan.

The country was being hailed as a potential breadbasket of the region because of its untapped land and water resources. Yields rose from half a ton of wheat per acre to two tons as the soil progressively improved. Tracy Park, the corporate vice president responsible for the farm, says it was able to feed 50,000 people in the region.

However, "you can't run a rational agriculture program in a country that's undergoing a civil war, not even if you're out of the immediate area where they're fighting," Mr. Park says. "You either can't get fuel, or supplies, or whatever it is you need." The company sold the farm to its employees in 1986.

And that is the story of starvation in Africa, says Avery. Except for the 1973 and 1983 droughts in Ethiopia, famine in Africa has been caused by shooting wars.

Somalia is the latest example: Over the last two months alone, 2,000 people a day have perished in the ongoing crisis, according to CARE. "This year we've got famine in Somalia with no drought, and drought in southern Africa with no famine. …